Masks and Your Child’s Language Development: What You Should Know

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In this Covid world, masks are an inexorable part of our new reality. As an early intervention speech language pathologist, I hear concern from families about how the lack of face to face communication may impact their children’s language and social emotional development. Does wearing a mask hinder a child’s language development?

Masks, though vital for preventing the spread of CoVID-19, do present some challenges when thinking about development.

They can reduce a child’s ability to begin to recognize familiar faces and identify basic emotions. Wearing a mask also can remove key non-verbal communication cues that could negatively effect language development. Children learn to speak by imitation and this can become much harder when they can’t always see how our mouths move to form different sounds and words.  

So, why are faces so important? Does wearing a mask hinder a child’s language development?

Does wearing a mask hinder a child's language development? child and caregiver in a maskResearch shows that a baby’s gaze typically shifts to looking specifically at mouths, in an attempt to master their native language, at around 4-8 months of age. A 2012 study showed that infants who look more at their talking mother’s mouth at 6 months went on to score higher on expressive language, size of vocabulary and socialization measures at 24 months of age (Lewkowicz & Hansen-Tift, 2016). People’s faces often provide key information about how they are feeling. 

Obviously, caregivers living with their children do not need to wear masks when at home. But if your child attends childcare or if you are spending time with your child outside of the house with lots of masked adults, what can you do to help foster language development?

Masks with a clear panel (like this one) are thought to be approximately 92% effective against the spread of Covid-19 and are a great option if childcare providers are willing to wear them. If this is not possible, adults can modify their behavior a little bit to compensate for the lack of unmasked face to face interaction.

If you’re worried about masks and your child’s language development, use some of the following strategies to continue to encourage language development. They work– even from behind a mask:

    1. Narrate everything! Describe what you are doing and seeing. Because creating a rich and varied language environment is one of the most important things you can do for children’s understanding and expression of language. I have often found myself performing a one-woman show in the dairy department of the grocery store. My show is complete with animal noises like “MOO” and “Cluck, Cluck”. Much to the entertainment of other shoppers
    2. Encourage and model the use of gestures like pointing and shoulder shrugging. Teach basic baby signs like “more”, “all done” and “help” in order to make communicating easier and to reduce frustration. Developing confidence in themselves as communicators will help with their motivation for using spoken language as well. 
    3. Slow down! Talking slowly may help children be able to hear what you are saying more clearly, as speech sounds can get muffled behind a mask. 
    4. Label your emotions frequently and clearly by stating them out loud.

Whether you’re at home or out and about, there are many things you can do to contribute to speech and language development. Spend lots of time looking at books together! Encourage your child to make funny faces in the mirror with you. When labeling objects for your little one, hold it right up next to your mouth. Then, you remind them to really watch how your mouth is moving.

As parents, it is important to remember that children are resilient and adaptable. The opportunities they have for quality interactions at home, without masks, go a long way in their overall development. 

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